McMansion World




Portuma McMansion 2002

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Morning news: McDonalds is suing the Oxford English Dictionary over the word “McJobs,” describing low-paying menial jobs without hope of advancement. This made me wonder if the golden arch attorneys would be heading after “McMansions” next.

McMansions are what follows the teardown. They are franchised, mass-produced homes that are “mansions” in size and price only. They are McMansions because, design-wise, they are collections of signifiers, generally assembled artlessly, like the eponymous sandwiches. Palladian windows. Curving front staircases. Quoined corners. Big flat warpy windows with fake muntins that look like scotch tape because people read “divided lights” as “classy”. Balustrades, columns and pediments, the bacon, lettuce and cheese of Classical style (heavy on the cheese). They also tend to be SUPER-SIZED. Entrances tend toward the subtlety of a streetwalker, with similar effect. Like the burgers, they have all the outward signs of taste but the inside is nothing but architectural trans-fats: pressboard and PVC.

They are actually very useful for illustrating the importance of proportion, because they almost always get it wrong, even in Hinsdale. The windows are too big and/or too divided, the quoins are usually WAY too big. If they have urns, they look out of scale, which is odd, because Wright could design 2-ton urns that didn’t look out of scale. Gables inset in gables, as if mere doubling masters an effect. The relatively inoffensive Irish example here has those inexplicable entrance sidelights and the bizarre fanlight below a pointed (but pointless) little eave gable. You can actually spot these things at 4-5 blocks distance because of the mistakes in proportion and because the windows give them an empty-eyed look, like a zombie in search of a brain.

And you can spot them EVERYWHERE. Not just Orlando, Dallas and Denver. I’ve seen them in Ireland, where the houses have the ostentation and only the garages are smaller. I’ve seen them in the former farm fields outside Wroclaw and Toronto, in the suburbs of Pittsburgh and Paris and Shanghai and yes, even Portland. Every nation in the world uses the same architectural symbols that signify elegance to the buyer and sudden wealth to the trained observer. In their global reach, they are the 21st century answer to 20th century urban renewal, which had ruinous effects not only in the Bronx and Kalamazoo, but pointedly in places like Marseille, Berlin and Sheffield.

This is another reason the name “McMansion” is good, because like the fast food franchises, they are all over the world, and they always look the same. I’ve seen them in Kyiv and Vienna, and in the curious attenuated sliver towers of Hanoi, where the columns and balustrades surmount a functionally useless top story. I haven’t been to Moscow or Lahore, but I am sure I would see them there, because I have seen them in Park Ridge, where the best way to advertise American arrivistism is a Louis XVI porch with gargoyles.

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